America’s creed: will Down syndrome prenatal testing abide by it?

Lincoln_MemorialIn honor of this week’s July 4th holiday, I wonder whether the administration of Down syndrome prenatal testing will abide by America’s creed. 

I recently had the opportunity to speak at an industry conference in Washington D.C. Whenever I visit my nation’s capital, I try to visit some of the monuments. Being a history and political science major, visiting the memorials is like visiting Wrigley Field for a baseball fan (something I recently got to do for the first time). While biking around the National Mall, I couldn’t help wondering if we really meant the sentiments etched into the monuments when it came to how we administer prenatal testing for Down syndrome.

Let’s start with the words that we will be celebrating this Thursday on July 4th. Independence Day honors the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. In a wonderful documentary on Thomas Jefferson from years ago, George Will (a fellow father of a child with Down syndrome), talks of how few nations can point to a single proposition as their creed. But, for Americans, we can. We look to the Declaration of Independence which expresses the American creed that:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Traveling counter-clockwise, from the Jefferson Memorial, you circle down to the Lincoln Memorial, honoring the leader of what many have termed America’s Second Revolution, the Civil War. My fellow Kentuckian’s words are not only etched bigger than life in the main hall, but also on slabs of marble in the exhibition gallery within the Memorial. Lincoln repeats America’s creed, but to make the point that a nation cannot treat fellow human beings as inferior to others:

Lincoln memorial quote

Between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials on the Tidal Basin are two of the newer monuments on the National Mall: the memorials to Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr.. Both memorials feature quotes from these leaders echoing America’s creed of equality.

The Roosevelt Memorial features the following quote from his time leading the United States during World War II:

FDRM quote2

The Memorial, itself, had its own fight to overcome ignorance. When originally built, Roosevelt was never shown fully as he lived. Like when he was alive, efforts were taken to camouflage his paralysis from polio. When first opened, the Memorial only had what it called four “rooms,” one room for each term of his presidency. Through the efforts of disability advocates a “prologue” room was added where Roosevelt is shown as he actually lived: smartly dressed in a hat and suit, and seated in his wheel chair. Behind him are the words of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt on the lesson his disability taught Roosevelt:

Franklin`s illness .. gave him strength and courage he had not had before. He had to think out the fundamentals of living and learn the greatest of all lessons – infinite patience and never-ending persistence.

With memorials honoring Jefferson from the 1700’s, Lincoln from the 1800’s, and then Roosevelt from the 1900’s, with each featuring quotes emphasizing men and women’s inherent equality, clearly America’s creed is one demanding infinite patience and never-ending persistence. This was demonstrated in the life honored by the newest memorial on the National Mall.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial opened to the public in August 2011. King already had a presence on the National Mall, with an etching on the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial commemorating where he delivered his “I have a Dream” speech–a speech that most are familiar with (or should be) sharing King’s vision when people of all races will join hands in recognition of their common equality. The memorial is ringed with King’s quotes further sharing this dream of realizing America’s creed. The one that jumped out at me was from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail explaining why everyone should be concerned where ever  injustice takes place:

King Birmingham Jail quote

The purpose of the Memorials are to serve as a form of public religion, teaching and reminding us of the battles we have overcome to learn the inalienable truth of the equality of all mankind. Prenatal testing for Down syndrome and other genetic conditions is yet another instance in our history where we must be reminded of this truth.

Prenatal genetic testing, by its very nature, suggests there is something different among some of the members of mankind. But, as micro-array testing is quickly revealing, we all have some genetic flaw, deletion, defect, or condition, of some sort. If anything, when the multitude of genetic traits are revealed through genetic testing it further shows that we all remain created equal: equally flawed, equally different, equally unique. Just because prenatal testing can be marketed for certain conditions does not mean that those living with the tested-for condition are any less equally created than anyone else.

And, so, just as the disability advocates had to fight for the full representation of Roosevelt’s life, we, too, must be reminded this July 4th of our creed, through infinite patience and never-ending persistence. Only then, may our world fulfill Dr. King’s dream.


  1. […] As I wrote in a previous post, prenatal testing for Down syndrome and other genetic conditions can challenge whether we really mean that. […]

  2. […] the picture is from the Declaration of Independence and has been referred to as the American “creed.” We would see the original Declaration at the National Archives before leaving on Friday. […]

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